“A weed is just a plant in the wrong place.” Never has a truer phrase applied so well to the humble and maligned Dandelion. Taraxacum offcianale, the common Dandelion, probably the most common and most widely recognised of European wild flowers (I refuse to call anything a “weed”!) which has therefore given this misunderstood herb a host of folk or common names such as Lion’s tooth, Wild Endive, Puffball and ‘piss-a-bed’…quite a mix! The lore of the Dandelion is extensive and varied, far more than I could possibly cover in a short blog, any herb with such a history must be of some use so I fully encourage anyone interested to delve deeper than the shallow waters I am about to tread, purely from personal experience.
Growth and Cultivation
Get up, step away from your screen for a few moments and take a peek outside your window, if you live in the UK and it happens to be lovely sunny day I would put money on there being a dandelion somewhere within your field of vision. Yes, the Dandelion is tenacious, hardy and rugged it will grow anywhere, anytime and pretty much everywhere including lawns, cultivated and uncultivated soil, in cracks in walls and walkways, in gutters, in the patio…absolutely everywhere it can get a hold.
The leaves of the dandelion are long and jagged, dog toothed even, looking a little similar to some varieties of rocket only larger and all emerging from a central crown. At this time of year each plant will send up 2, 3 even 4 or more tall flower heads, large bright disks of golden florets, radiant yellow from a thousand petals arranged like a fine solar disk. The seed heads are equally unmistakable, the familiar ‘puff ball’ like appearance as the flowers turn from a disk of vibrant yellow to a fluffy globe of feathery, downy seed heads, delicate and fragile enough to be dispersed by the slightest breeze.
Dandelions tend to grow from one central taproot, these can be huge and grow down incredibly deep and again, such is the tenacity of Dandelion that leaving only a small piece of root in the ground can often result in the plant re-appearing.
Should you wish to grow and cultivate Dandelions (strange I know…but some of us do!) then collect the seeds and sow thinly in trays with seed compost . Now is as good a time as any and germination will only take a matter of weeks. The young plants start to look like baby Dandelions very quickly (in fact I think they look a little like young lettuce plants) and should be pricked out and potted on as soon as true leaves have sprouted, even at this young age the plants produce some astonishingly long roots compared to the size of the seedling, so keep them moving. Plant out wherever you want and they will thrive, but look their best clustered together in a sunny spot and will brighten up a patch of land you, potentially can’t grow anything else. Despite the bad name Dandelion has been given, they actually look very beautiful in the right spot, among the right planting. Self-seeding is obviously an issue, the seeds get everywhere, the only answer is to harvest the flowers before the seed heads form (which I do) and you’ll have no problems (although you can’t control what’s already carried in on the wind!)
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
The leaves, flowers and the roots are all useful in the kitchen. Starting with the leaves, pick them young and fresh in the spring for adding to salads and even sandwiches (cheese sandwiches especially) however for older tougher leaves treat them like spinach and steam them or sweat them in a little butter or add to Chinese stir fries. If you’re harvesting from the wild, I can’t stress the importance of washing the leaves thoroughly before use…thinking how and where they often grow they are likely to have been trodden on and god only knows what else so harvest with common sense!
The leaves (raw especially) are rich in Vitamin A, Iron and fibre, however dried and made into a tea (especially with something like Nettle) would make a fine detoxifying, diuretic tonic good for flushing through the water works (i.e. the liver and Kidneys etc) so perfect after a weekend of excess! There is a reason this plant was known as ‘wet the bed’ when I was young or ‘piss a bed’ to use the more common folk name…even to touch the plant or sniff the flower would encourage bed wetting all night long, yes…Dandelion’s diuretic properties are that potent!
The flowers are also edible. Gather them around noon when the sun is shining on them and the flowers are dry and open to their fullest, strip the tiny petals from a respectfully gathered flower head and scatter over a salad for decoration or collect more for making into a syrup or a marmalade. Just work quickly because the flowers wilt at a phenomenal rate! I tried Dandelion marmalade this year and it’s really quite nice (especially on thick toasted bread!) but you must start with a good base of apple pectin, the marmalade wont set on sugar and dandelion petals alone.
There are also several Dandelion Wine recipes out there which I am yet to try. This year (as part of my Aromatherapy massage training) I have also made a Dandelion Infused oil, which by all accounts is a marvellous massage base for achy muscles, especially muscles tense from stress or pent up emotion, so I am particularly looking forward to experimenting with that one! The oil is made by packing a glass jar with the petals / flower heads and covering in a neutral oil such as sunflower or safflower and leaving to steep on a warm sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, exactly as I discussed in ‘C is for Calendula’, a few drops of wheatgerm oil (packed with Vitamin E) will preserve the oil, but should be kept refrigerated for longevity.
Dandelion Roots make a rather good Coffee substitute. You need a good crop of substantial roots which should be scrubbed clean. Remember I said that a little dandelion root will often produce a new plant? Well assuming you are not growing your own and harvesting from the wild I think it’s always nice to replant a little side root to minimise the impact…always try to make as small a dent as possible! So, once your roots are washed (and looking a little like small parsnips) leave them to dry. Once dry chop them into small pieces and spread over a baking sheet so the pieces of root make a single layer, roast in a warm oven slowly (160°C for a couple of hours for better flavour or 200°C for 30 minutes to get the job done quick) and leave to cool. Grind the roots finely and treat as you would coffee in a percolator or cafetière.
You can also steep the dried and ground (not roasted) root in strong vodka at 2 parts alcohol to one part finely ground root (higher proof the better) for more intense diuretic, detoxifying tincture. Add approximately 1 ml to a glass of water and take 3 – 4 times a day to flush and purge the urinary tract as well as improve digestion.
Interestingly I have also read testimonies from those who claim to have had warts and verrucae cured by the milky-white latex like sap which the dandelion exudes from its stem when cut, I have never tried personally or seen results first hand but some people swear the condition cleared up within a couple of days of regular application to the affected area! I suppose there’s no harm in trying…
Culpepper associates Dandelion with Jupiter, the great astrological benevolence and when you appreciate the abundance and vigour of this bright and cheery ‘jovial’ herb, you soon understand why.
The first ‘spell’ I ever learned involved Dandelions, in fact it’s probably the first spell most youngsters in the British Isles learn (whether they realise it or not). When we were kids we would pick the puffy seed heads of Dandelion and make a wish as we blew hard on the fluffy white seeds, scattering them and our wishes into the four winds. Sometimes we would leap up to catch a lone dandelion seed floating in the early summer breeze or chase them round the streets just to be granted a wish upon the floating seed head, perhaps subconsciously hoping that as the seedling germinated, as it inevitably would somewhere, our wish would grow and come to fruition.
We also used to tell the time by counting the number of times we had to blow on a seed head to clear it of its cotton wool covering; 1’oclock, 2’oclock and so on…we were seldom right, but something kept us picking them, blowing hard and making wishes, telling the time…personally I think we used to just love watching them fly off into the wind, like little people on parachutes or tiny creatures…there is undoubtedly something very magical about walking along on a barmy early summer evening surrounded by hundreds of these downy seeds dancing in the wind, something otherworldly and timeless.
The roots of the Dandelion, as alluded to above, grow with striking resemblance to Mandrake roots and make a particularly good substitute for the Mandrake spirit and can be fashioned the same way. In fact I would openly encourage it as Mandrakes aren’t especially common in the UK (I’ve never seen one growing wild) so unless you are cultivating your own Mandrakes then I wouldn’t advise digging up a mandrake even if you should come across one…better left alone I think and instead use a substitute, leaving the rarer to be admired by others! Dandelion along with the more commonly used white Briony root, make great substitutes and Dandelion is naturally imbued with all the vigour and strength you need from a plant ally.
So, next time you’re out in your garden, furiously cursing a stray Dandelion in the lawn or tugging at a Dandelion that doesn’t happen to be growing in the right spot, consider putting the weed killer to one side for just a moment, or consider replanting it elsewhere perhaps, but most importantly please…at least consider the Dandelion and all the good it can do if given the chance.